Watchdog group cites donations by drillers

Derrick Ek
Tom O'Mara

State Sen. Tom O'Mara, R-Big Flats, is among the top 10 state legislative representatives receiving campaign contributions from the natural gas industry, according to a five-year survey by Common Cause/NY.

Common Cause, a government watchdog group, released a report Tuesday detailing the natural gas industry’s campaign contributions to New York lawmakers and questioning if the money was influencing policy on fracking. It reported O'Mara has received $13,700 in campaign contributions.

The report looked at elections data  from January 2007 to October 2011 and found the gas industry made 2,349 campaign contributions to state and local politicians and political parties totaling more than $1.34 million.

“Hydraulic fracturing has raised environmental questions and now financial ones about the influence of the natural gas industry over state lawmakers and public policy. New Yorkers need to be assured that such a controversial issue will be decided based on merit not money,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause, in a statement.

O'Mara was a state Assemblyman for three of those years and was elected to the Senate in November 2010. He was ranking Republican on the Assembly’s Energy Committee and currently serves on the Senate’s Energy Committee.

O’Mara said the Common Cause report lists contributions to his campaign from utilities who have been longtime suppliers of energy to the region’s residents, such as NYSEG, not just from companies who will be directly involved in fracking should it be allowed in New York.

He insisted that any contributions he has received haven’t altered his stance on the fracking issue – he supports drilling for the economic benefits it could bring to the Southern Tier, with the caveat that it be strictly regulated.

“I’ve always been outspoken on the need for strong oversight and regulation on this if we’re going to move forward, and frankly, I’ve gotten some pushback from the industry in regards to having that position,” O’Mara said.

O’Mara added that the DEC is determining the proper regulations, not the state Legislature, and rightfully so. The DEC isn’t rushing things, O’Mara said.

“In the conclusion of its report, Common Cause says they want to make sure the ultimate policy adopted by our state is based on fact and science,” O’Mara said. “And that’s consistent with my position all along on fracking – that we have the experts determine if we can do this responsibly and safely, and set forth regulations to do it responsibly and safely.”

Two other senators from the region, Sen. Michael Nozzolio and Sen. Thomas Libous – who represent the Finger Lakes and Binghamton, respectively – are also listed in Common Cause’s “Top 10 State Legislative Recipients of Natural Gas Money.”

Common Cause says its tally of gas industry campaign donations is “admittedly incomplete,” saying New York does not require corporate donors to identify their industry sector or parent companies, and does not require individual donors to identify their occupation, employer or place of business, “making it extremely difficult to connect top corporate executives and board members with the interests they represent.”

O’Mara, though, said he doesn’t support using taxpayer money to fund campaigns.

“We’ve got a system in place that has worked for a long time,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re going to improve upon it by having taxpayer dollars contributed to candidates. (Fundraising) is part of the process of running for office.”

The report is posted online at www.commoncause.org/ny/deepdrillingdeeppockets, along with previous reports detailing lobbying expenditures by the gas industry.